Which Plating Process Is Right for You?

The difference between a part that performs well for a decade and one that fails after a month sometimes comes down to the choice and quality of plating. You can plate plastic with titanium, but would you necessarily want to?

Standard industrial electroplating is an invaluable process that gives the moving parts in our many industries the strength, durability, wear-resistance and aesthetic qualities they need to perform their duties without worry. In years past, if you wanted to work with certain materials, you’d have to choose standard industrial electroplating. Today, technology makes it possible to engage in electroplating with more substrates and platings than ever before.

Of course, knowing which to choose comes down to knowing what you need your product to do and familiarizing yourself with the basics of the industry.

Advantages of Standard Industrial Metal Plating

Industrial plating, in general, refers to the process of adding a thin metal coating onto the outermost surface of a workpiece. Metal coatings may be applied to a panoply of metal and nonmetal substrates. This practice is frequently used to improve the aesthetic appeal of a product, but metal plating also offers several other distinct advantages:

  • Makes the product more resistant to chemicals and corrosion from environmental factors
  • Adds thickness to the surface of a product for better durability and strength over time
  • Improves the ability to solder your workpiece
  • Increases the surface hardness of your workpiece and improves its adhesion qualities

Among metal plating techniques, the two most common are electroplating and electroless plating.

What Is Electroplating and Where Is It Useful?

Electroplating involves the application of an electric current to an electrolyte in which a workpiece has been submerged. In essence, when you engage in electroplating, you create a closed electrical circuit. Some of the atoms in your electrolyte bath are compelled by the current of this circuit to peel away and deposit themselves onto the workpiece, thereby plating it with your chosen material.

Electroplating is frequently used to plate a variety of substrates with metals like copper, chromium, gold, lead, platinum, palladium, tin and zinc. The process is primarily used to improve the surface thickness of workpieces. Standard industrial electroplating is useful when working with an abundant selection of substrates, including:

  • Copper: Electroplating with copper is the right choice if you value adhesion and solderability. Obvious applications involve circuit boards and other electronic products.
  • Tin: Plating with tin delivers cost-effectiveness and modest durability. It’s great for corrosion resistance and when you want a bright, eye-catching finish.
  • Zinc: Zinc is unique among elemental metals in that it sports a kind of self-healing mechanism that protects the substrate underneath. It’s also an extremely abundant material, which makes it more cost-effective than many of the other options.

The natural evolution of technology has, of course, delivered more advanced and modern plating processes from which to choose. One of these is electroless plating.

Advantages and Use Cases of Electroless Plating

If cost-effectiveness is one of your primary deciding factors, electroless plating should be on your radar. Compared with creating solid parts, plating more affordable materials with metals improves durability without greatly adding expense. Because electroless plating does not require an external power source, the process tends to be more energy-efficient than the alternatives. In fact, electroless plating is a 100 percent chemical process.

Who should choose electroless plating? If you require an end-product that is more corrosion-resistant and durable than it is beautiful to behold, electroless plating is a solid option. Electroless-plated parts tend to find their way into maritime and oceanic applications, as well as the oil drilling industry. Electroless plating is also a better choice if production involves convoluted or complex shapes. Valves and pumps, and all their attendant moving parts, are key applications for electroless plating.

Electroless plating wasn’t always compatible with a full range of materials, but technology has reduced those limitations and made it available to a much wider variety of industries. These days, you can perform electroless plating with copper, cobalt, gold, nickel and palladium. Still, there are three main materials which provide the best results in electroless plating:

  • Copper: Copper is one of the best conductors of electricity currently known. It’s also a great fit for electroplating because it grants the final product better adhesion.
  • Nickel: Nickel platings deliver great corrosion resistance, which is why it’s the most common material in electroless plating. Nickel is also a hard metal and great for durability — as well as when you intend to paint the product before use.
  • Gold: Gold is almost certainly the most recognizable elemental metal in the world, which is why it remains perennially popular in applications where aesthetic appeal is paramount. Gold also doesn’t tarnish easily and offers both contact resistance and excellent electro-conductivity. Choose electroless plating with gold if you deal in electrical connectors and semiconductors.

Know Your Product and Its Intended Uses

Whichever plating process you ultimately choose, know that metal plating can be applied not only to other metals, but also to abundant other substrates. You’ll be able to learn more from any reputable plating company, but it’s still a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the common applications as well as the fringe cases:

  • Plastics and Ceramics: Electroplating can be performed by depositing silver or gold atop plastics and even ceramics. In some cases, the workpiece will first need to be electrolessly plated before standard electroplating can be applied.
  • Steel and Iron: Electroplating with chromium onto steel and iron yields parts that are better able to withstand friction, making this an excellent choice for small and large engine parts.
  • Aluminum and Brass: Somewhat recent developments have made it possible to electrolessly plate aluminum, brass and other metals with a black nickel finish. This is an increasingly popular choice in the optics, firearms and aerospace industries, where low-profile designs and resistance to lengthy sunlight exposure are often preferable over something with more flash.

As you can see, there’s a nearly dizzying number of variables and combinations possible in the world of plating and metal finishing. Ultimately, making the best choice means knowing your substrate, its intended uses and the qualities you’d like your finished product to offer.

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